An Anchorage high school senior talks about what graduation means to him

Coen Niclai on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, two days before his graduation from Anchorage’s Service High School. (Valerie Lake/Alaska Public Media)

It’s high school graduation season across the state, as outgoing seniors don caps and gowns and accept their diplomas.

It’s the culmination of years of hard work and a starting point for the rest of their lives.

Service High’s Coen Niclai is one of those graduates in Anchorage. He’s a star baseball player and a volunteer peer mentor for freshman and students with intellectual disabilities.

Niclai says starting high school in the middle of a pandemic was unique. But after that first year of remote learning, he says, starting an in-person sophomore year had its own challenges.


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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Coen Niclai: It was kind of interesting, just feeling like you’re a freshman, but you’re really not. And so it was definitely a different kind of experience. You kind of have three years of high school rather than four. But I think once you kind of adjusted and you found your bearings, you kind of understood how to do it all.

Casey Grove: And I know you’ve got your experience, but, I mean, did you see that with your peers that were part of your class, too?

CN: Yeah, I think they, you could definitely tell the ones that are still trying to, kind of, hold on to being a freshman or still holding on to being in the middle school kind of era. And then you have the ones that are like, “Alright, I have three years now until I have to go to college, or I have to start my job.” And you can see, definitely, the different levels of maturity within each classroom.

CG: I heard that you’ve done some some volunteer work through school, both, I guess, peer mentorship, and then also working with some special needs kids in high school. Can you describe that for me? And what does that all entail?

CN: So the peer mentorship is like just helping freshmen just feel more at home and making them feel like they have people around them to talk to. And then, as for the special needs, it was “peer teaching” is what he called it. You just go into the classroom, you sit with a person, and you don’t really have to have any understanding. It’s just making sure they’re staying on task or helping them do something, and I think just helping you understand what their life adversity is. I think that really helps yourself and different life adverse situations as well.

CG: Yeah. And why is that important? Why is it important to you? Why do you think it’s important to other people to volunteer?

CN: I think if you just understand other people’s situations or understand people’s lives, it makes you more humble, because you’re understanding that you’re not better than anyone else. It’s, everyone’s going through their own things. And I think just volunteering is just understanding that people have their stories, and some are hard and some are easy, but I think just understanding it all is a really good life skill.

CG: Man, I gotta say, I know people that are 20 years older than you that I don’t think have figured that out yet. It’s refreshing to hear that.

CN: That’s good. That’s great.

CG: So you’re graduating here and like two days from from when we’re talking. And, you know, you’re gonna walk across the stage, they’re gonna hand you a diploma, what is it going to mean to you?

CN: I think it means it means a lot. A lot of hard work and a lot of adversity, just going through high school and starting high school different than most kids and just knowing that we got four years done. But I think if you look at it as an achievement, as a birth of an achievement, is what it would be, just because you got work or you got college after. So I think celebrating on the day, and then knowing that after today, it’s, still got some hard work to keep going.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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